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( Originally Published 1894 )
There are many varieties of pigeons, some being peculiar to certain districts, and others covering a much more extended geographical area. Mr. Darwin divides the British varieties into four groups: I. The English carrier; the Runt, and the Barb. II. The Fantail; the African owl; the Short-faced Tumbler; the Indian Frillback; and the Jacobin. III. The English Pouter, and IV. The Dove-cote pigeon; the Swallow; the Spot; the Nun; the English Frill-back; the Laugher, and the Trumpeter. The Passenger pigeon of America, the Nicobar pigeon of the Philippine Islands, the Great-crowned pigeon of New Guinea and the Hook-billed ground pigeon of Samoa are other important species.
In the "Percy Anecdotes" there is a brief history of the use of carrier pigeons, which we quote as follows:-" The first mention we find made of the employment of pigeons as letter carriers is by Ovid, in his `Metamorphoses', who tells us that Taurosthenes, by a pigeon stained with purple, gave notice of his having been victor at the Olympic games on the very same day to his father at Aegina. Pliny informs us that during the siege of Modena by Marc Antony, pigeons were employed by $rutus to keep up a correspondence with the besieged. When the city of Ptolemais, in Syria, was invested by the French and Venetians, and it was ready to fall into their hands, they observed a pigeon flying over them, and immediately conjectured that it was charged with letters to the garrison. On this, the whole army raising a loud shout, so confounded the poor aerial post that it fell to the ground, and on being seized, a letter was found under its wings, from the sultan, in which he assured the garrison that `he would be with them in three days, with an army sufficient to raise the siege.' For this letter the besiegers substituted another to this purpose, `that the garrison must see to their own safety, for the sultan had such other affairs pressing him that it was impossible for him to come to their succour;' and with this false intelligence they let the pigeon free to pursue his course. The garrison, deprived by this decree of all hope of relief, immediately surrendered. The sultan appeared on the third day, as promised, with a powerful army, and was not a little mortified to find the city already in the hands of the Christians. Carrier pigeons were again employed, but with better success, at the siege of Leyden, in 1675. The garrison were, by means of the information thus conveyed to them, induced to stand out, till the enemy, despairing of reducing the place, withdrew. On the siege being raised, the Prince of Orange ordered that the pigeons who had rendered such essential service should be maintained at the public expense, and that at their death they should be embalmed and preserved in the town house, as a perpetual token of gratitude."
Pigeons are said to travel as fast as 2,200 yards per minute and to sustain flight for hundreds of miles at a stretch. The extraordinary manner in which they will find their way almost incredible distances has suggested all kinds of speculation as to the instinct or sense which guides them. A well known pigeon fancier, interviewed by a writer who published the results of the interview in " Chums " (Cassell & Co.) says, " The popular notion that carrier pigeons are guided by some `direction sense,' or blind instinct, is quite as absurd as the French belief that they follow certain electrical currents. I have had to do with pigeons for over twenty years," he continued, " and I am open to demonstrate to anyone that in flight they are guided by sight alone. Of course, some pigeons are more sagacious, cleverer than others; but the fact remains, and everything tends to prove it. For example, no carrier-pigeon can find its way over a strange country: it often gets lost in a fog; and again, until taught by experience, it is often led astray by colours and objects which appear to be familiar. Quite recently, when I was trying some young birds, I had an instance of how easily they may be led astray. Close to my residence is a large red-brick building, which, to an old bird, would prove a good landmark miles away. In this case, however, the birds had not been tried before, although, of course, they had been let loose and had circled round the loft for several weeks. I took five birds with me some half-mile distant from home; and, letting them loose separately from the box, was rather surprised to see four out of the five, after circling round, fly off in an entirely opposite direction to that in which they should have gone. I soon solved the mystery, however, for, watching the birds, I saw they were making for another red-brick building, which showed up clearly in the sunlight. Arriving there, each one evidently discovered its mistake, and, after flying back to the starting-point, found their whereabouts, and made for home-not in a straight line, however, for young birds invariably take a crooked, tortuous path, as though feeling their way. If pigeons are let loose on water (from a boat in a lake or wide river), they always make for the nearest land first; then, circling round, widening their circle and rising higher at the same time, they keep the starting-point in view until they sight some familiar object, in which direction they travel. If a bird is dull, or `stupid,' as we term it, and has been tried from various points of the compass, it often happens that, when taken to a distance (say thirty or forty miles), the time occupied in reaching the (oft is three of four times longer than was expected; but, take it there next day, and the journey will be done quicker than a mile a minute. Why is that? Well, the birds get confused; some object which it may have seen on a former journey, may possibly stand out boldly; and, flying at once toward this, the bird may find itself just as far from finding the `lay of the land.' Thus it may go from one familiar point to another before `striking' for home. That is the reason why, in training a bird for a match, we take it only in the direction from which it will have to fly, increase the distance gradually, until the bird is familiar with the path it must travel and recognises each landmark as soon as it comes in sight."